I decided to start the year off right by reading something from my endless TBR pile, "The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family," Mary S. Lovell's biography of the famous (or infamous, depending on your view) siblings. It's a totally engaging read and offers something for nearly everyone, with its mix of aristocrats and eccentrics, true love and infidelity, The Great Depression and WWII, fascism and communism. All of it played out in one family who came to define an era and continued to make news long afterwards.
The cast of characters includes Muv (Sydney), Farve (David), and seven children: Nancy, the eldest and a best-selling novelist; domestic Pam; only son Tom; beautiful Diana who married British Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley and spent the war years in jail; Unity whose obsession with Hitler led her to shoot herself in the head the day war was declared between Britain and Germany; Jessica (Decca) who ran away to fight the Fascists in Spain and became a best selling author in the U.S., and Deborah (Debo) who grew up to marry a duke just as she predicted as a child. Essentially, the Mitford family was torn apart by the opposing political ideologies of the sisters.
For anyone curious about the Mitfords, this family bio is the place to begin. Lovell sorts out fact from fiction, myth from malicious gossip; not an easy task since the sisters were often inventive in their own memoirs and roman a clef novels. The entire family used endless nicknames for themselves and everyone they knew. Two sisters actually corresponded with each other, both using the name Susan. The girls had secret societies and even a coded language. All of this shows up in Decca's cult classic, "Hons and Rebels," but it's Lovell who puts all the sisters' books — and lives — in context.
Lovell points out in the book's introduction that, though politics plays such a critical roles in the Mitford family, she doesn't take sides; preferring instead to "explore the richness of the personalities, not to judge them." I felt that Lovell did have her own bias, seeming much of the time to have that particularly English awe of the upper class. To me, she also revealed her British background in the fact that she only saw the "muckraking" description of Decca's classic book, "The American Way of Death," as perjorative; I saw that moniker as a badge of pride.
If Lovell could maintain her objectivity in the face of some family members' association with Hitler, I could not. Unlike most of those who initially viewed HItler in a favorable light, Diana never recanted or repented. Unity could not, after her self-inflicted head wound affected her mental capabilities. Decca did not speak to Diana for 34 years because of it, while their parents' marriage was torn apart over Hitler and, to a lesser extent, Decca's Communism. It should be noted that, though Decca fought with the Communists against the Fascists in Spain, she ultimately left the Party and repudiated it when the full extent of Stalin's atrocities became known.
The book exposes a lot of sordid behavior but, having read about Mosley's first wife in Anne de Courcy's bio of the Curzon sisters, most of that was no longer surprising. What was noteworthy was how little the Mitford sisters — as adults — ever seemed to have seriously examined their parents' backgrounds which so clearly influenced their behavior and attitudes toward their children. Sydney's mother died when she was eight years old and by the time she was fourteen, she was in sole charge of running her father's London household and its finances. Is it any wonder that she was undemonstrative and did not provide the maternal affection her children craved? The poor child had never had any herself, so how could she behave any other way.
Meanwhile David was the second son: ignored, sent to second-class schools and thwarted in his choice of a military career. School was too unhappy a memory to foist such an experience on his daughters, especially in an age when women rarely had a formal education. The desire to go to school was strong among the Mitford daughters, however, and some bitterly complained about the lack of it. Their successful literary output, however, suggests that they didn't suffer all that much as a result of home-schooling.
Reading the literary output of the various Mitford offspring presents a very different picture of the family than Lovell offers. Nancy fictionalized their life for her books, Lovell points out, while Decca fabricated it and Diana conveniently forgot as needed. Until his death, Tom was the only member of the family who was "on speakers" (Mitford for speaking terms) with everyone else.
Debo, the youngest Mitford child whose husband was the Duke of Devonshire, before a foxhunt in the early 1950s.
The Mitford sisters reminded me of an acquaintance of mine: Everyone called him "Frank," not his real name, but because of his "frank" utterances. Eventually I realized he wasn't frank; he was rude and cruel and his pronouncements were calculated to harm rather than charm. That's what life among the Mitfords looked like to this reader. Throw Hitler into the mix, and you've got a rather unsavory dish — no matter how charismatic the chefs.
Nevertheless, I recommend reading Lovell's group biography, if only to understand a family who are still making news. But also because they did know everyone of their generation, and the array of people who show up — John Betjman, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Bobby Kennedy, Beverly Nichols — is staggering.